Cutting and marking coins out of necessity
- Published: Feb 17, 2017, 5 AM
World Coins feature from the March 6, 2017, Monthly issue of Coin World:
The cut, counterstamped and otherwise necessity coins of the West Indies have always been of interest to me, as I have a family link to that part of the world. My paternal grandfather, Allan T. Gilkes Sr., was born in 1888 on the island of Montserrat but emigrated from the island to the United States while still a teenager.
Much of where my grandfather knew as home is no longer habitable. Nearly half of the island was buried in volcanic ash during major eruptions of the Soufrière Hills volcano between 1995 and 1999.
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Montserrat is one of six islands that constitute the Leeward Islands, with nearly twice that number forming the Windward Islands group to their south. The two island groups form one section of the long chain of mainly volcanic islands that curve northeast from Venezuela in South America to Puerto Rico. The islands create a border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands were valuable stopping points in the sea journey between South America and Europe, and the nations in conflict in Europe brought their conflicts to the islands.
Each of the island groups at one time or another during the 17th, 18th and into the early 19th centuries, used necessity money, often in the form of cut and countermarked versions of the silver, gold and other metallic coins of whichever major nation controlled a particular island at a particular time.
While most of the cut pieces originated as Spanish Colonial or English coins, examples of cut Massachusetts silver coinage used in island circulation in the late 17th century are known.
Contemporary and modern forgeries of the genuine cut and countermarked issues are also known to exist, so collectors should seek the coins only from knowledgeable and trustworthy sources.
Why cut a coin?
The cut pieces, valued at fractions of their uncut counterparts, were necessary for making change and smaller purchases.
These forms of money were put into use long before any specific circulating issues were minted dedicated to an individual island or region.
Both the Windward and Leeward Islands are part of a larger grouping termed the Lesser Antilles, which are, in turn, a section of the Caribbean Islands of the West Indies. The Leeward group are the northern islands in the Lesser Antilles section, extending from east of Puerto Rico and reaching southward toward Dominica.
The Windward Islands start from Dominica and reach southward toward Trinidad & Tobago.
England, France and the Netherlands all jockeyed for control of each island, with some islands changing hands multiple times. Many of the cut and countermarked coins reflect these changes, with countermarks on the various pieces reflecting values for more than one nation’s monetary system.
As the pieces circulated among the islands, acceptance and valuation of the cut and counterstamped coins between islands also differed, and the pieces acquired more markings for this reason as well.
Collectors may consider assembling a representative type set. Possible combinations are endless, as hobbyists may select by host coin being used; denomination; island or islands on which each piece could be used; how each was cut; the various counterstamps used; and more. An examination of auction catalogs suggests that opportunities for type pieces are more prevalent among silver issues than gold.
Whether silver or gold, pieces can be valued into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on rarity and condition.
Each piece is technically unique, since the use and position of counterstamps and the way a coin is cut create differences among even pieces marked as having the same value.
The host coin of choice most often encountered is a silver 8-real coin, the Spanish Colonial dollar, which could be physically divided into 12 equal parts or “bits.” This monetary division would determine how a whole coin could be divided, then counterstamped and valued by the controlling authority. The country in control would usually establish a value by royal edict, and that value could change in time with another royal decision.
How a coin was cut apart, as well as the values assigned to the parts, was determined by what denominations were required in circulation at the time. Further cutting would create yet smaller denominations. The shapes created would depend on the cuts that came before. A cut quarter piece, for example, could be accomplished multiple ways depending where on the coin the cutting began.
Some cut pieces retain most of the original host coin, but with a center piece cut out in a multitude of possible shapes. The piece cut out could also be countermarked and valued separately based on its weight in precious metal.
Countermarked pieces using French sou and sol coins as host coins, and English and Dutch issues from various series, are also known.
According to Fred Pridmore in The Coins of The British Commonwealth of Nations: Part 3 West Indies, by the late 17th century, the French billon coin was the only sol-denominated piece remaining in quantity in circulation in the West Indies. The billon composition was approximately 25 percent silver and 75 percent copper. From decades of use in circulation, the host coins’ designs were often obliterated by wear, often reduced simply to an appearance of gray-black colored slivers, according to Pridmore.
Often the only device remaining on the billon is a recessed fleur-de-lis counterstamp.
The English referred to what they considered debased silver coinage as “black dogg” because of the color. In the French West Indies, the same worn pieces garnered the nickname “sol marque,” meaning “dirt mark.”
The countermarked and cut pieces that circulated on Montserrat included pieces solely countermarked for Montserrat, or countermarked by Montserrat with another island’s authority.
For example, a Montserrat and Tortola countermarked 2 bits piece, Pridmore 46, is a cut one-quarter segment of a Spanish Colonial 8-real coin countermarked with an M stamp on the obverse and three couped cross stamps on the reverse, for Montserrat, circa 1788 to 1801, and with a Type II TIRTILA stamp (for Tortola, circa 1805 to 1824) on the obverse almost obliterating the earlier M stamp.
The Montserrat countermark exhibits a combination of three M stamps on one side as a means to prevent clipping and debasement. The couped cross stamp on the other side, meant as a valuation stamp, was usually only applied once on cut segments.
The Pridmore 46 piece has an opposite combination of markings, however, with three of the couped crosses, but only one of the Montserrat Ms.
Pridmore assigned the period of 1785 to 1805 for the Montserrat couped cross stamps, based on the latest date known to him on a Spanish Colonial 2-real coin countermarked with the couped cross design, and on several examples of the TIRTILA counterstamp (which was assigned to the 1805 to 1824 period) being applied over earlier Montserrat cross stamps. The Heritage Auctions’ lot description for an example of the Pridmore 46 piece that sold for $4,700 in a Sept. 4, 2014, sale, notes that the
Edward Roehrs Collection, however, contained a Spanish pistareen dated 1788 with such a Montserrat cross stamp. The piece was Lot 152 in Dix Noonan Webb’s Sept. 28, 2010, sale of the Roehrs Collection.
According to the Dix Noonan Webb lot description: “This coin is unusual in that an official stamp has been countermarked on a pistareen rather than on a Spanish-American 2 reals. It is not unusual to find pistareens countermarked with contemporary forgery stamps.”
Another similar example, Lot 692 in Bonhams July 1996 sale containing the Alexander Patterson Collection, bears a TORTOLA Type I stamp, circa 1801, over a contemporary imitation of the three M stamps.
The two pieces, according to the Heritage cataloger, narrow the period of the cut one-quarter segment Montserrat issue instead to 1788 to 1801.
Among gold issues one may encounter that reflect changes in valuation, one example is a countermarked piece that appeared as Lot 238 in the Sept. 28, 2010, sale by Dix Noonan Webb of the Edward Roehrs Collection.
Valued as a 66-livre gold piece under regulations established by royal edict in July of 1798 on Martinique, the piece is fashioned from a counterfeit 1767 Brazilian gold 6,400-real coin of Joseph I.
The piece is marked to indicate changes in its value authorized in different locations between 1798 and 1805, as it traveled in circulation — valued twice for Martinique and once each for St. Vincent and Guadeloupe, the piece underwent the addition and then removal of a gold plug, and the same with a base plug.
Several prominent numismatists have assembled extensive, distinctive collections of cut and countermarked coins of the West Indies.
Foremost among the collections sold at auction over the past several decades are those of John J. Ford Jr., whose collection was sold Oct. 16, 1989, by Glendining’s in conjunction with A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.; Fred Pridmore, whose collection was sold Sept. 21 and 22, 1981, by Glendining & Co., in conjunction with A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.; Edward Roehrs, whose collection was sold in two parts, Sept. 28, 2010, and Nov. 17, 2011, by Dix Noonan Webb.
DNW also sold an extensive offering of cut and countermarked coins from an undisclosed consignor in its September 2008 auction. Coins in the offering, assembled during a 35-year period, included pieces pedigreed to the former ownership of Fred Pridmore, R.A. Byrne, John Work Garrett, Alexander Patterson, Ralph Gordon, Williams Tankersley, and others.
Auction catalogs that illustrate major collections of cut and countermarked coins will provide collectors with an appreciation of the many types of pieces one may encounter in future auctions and/or on the bourse floor of a numismatic convention.
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